Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Little Realism

          Around 2 a.m. the next morning, while Dusan and I are talking about poverty and prostitution in one of the night-clubs, three UN soldiers are killed.  They are killed in the same region we just drove through, where the Mai-Mai boys were trying to be big men.  Dusan is supposed to make the same drive back North to Beni the next day, but when I go out for dinner I see him sitting in the restaurant, once again.
    -What happened?  I ask.  You are supposed to be on your way up to Beni.
    -The road is too dangerous now.  It was not very good that we drove it yesterday, either.  There is more insecurity and Mai-Mai and locals are getting angry with MONUSCO for not doing more to protect people.  They are demonstrating and may continue to do so.
          He looks really tired.  He's hunched over and paying more attention to the words on his IPhone than what he's saying to me.  And he's not smoking.
    -Are you still going to make your flight to Croatia?
    -Yes, yes, not any problem.  I am catching flight early tomorrow to Beni.
    -Okay, that's good.
          He pulls a cigarette out of the box in his pocket, I relax.  Everything is okay.
          Dusan leaves the next day, as planned, and I am left to figure out Goma and Bukavu on my own.  Goma is a city of lava rocks, Swahili and Non-Governmental Organizations.  It is teeming with Internationals.  The New York Times is here, Ben Affleck's Eastern Congo Initiative, HEAL Africa, Catholic Relief Services, UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children, World Health Organization, Merlin, TEARFund, War Child, Handicap International, Finn Church Aide, and the list goes on.  Ashley Judd is even here for something called PSI.  I hear she wears a lot of make-up and still looks exhausted.
          I have brief meetings with various people involved in each organization.  It's relatively easy to network, since most Non-Profit workers are glued to their computers in the coffee shop of my hotel from 9-5.  It's not a bad office; there is sunlight, tropical flowers, and birds chattering in the background throughout the day.  Everyone seems to be doing the same things, working on grants, sending statistic reports, preparing presentations, all within the general topics of water supply, IDPs , rape victims, etc.  It's hard to get details, but they seem to be doing, more or less, the same things COPERMA and I are trying to do, except everyone here has funding.
          While sitting in the hotel coffee shop, a surprisingly Westernized little place, I overhear one of the Eastern Congo Initiative employees talking to a Graduate student about the motherhood mortality rates in Congo.  The Graduate student pulls out her computer and flashes through a power point presentation on the subject, searching for statistics.
    -1,000/100,000 women die during childbirth each year in all of Congo, but it almost doubles to 1,879/100,000 per year  in North Kivu alone, says the student emphatically. She moves her entire body as she speaks.
          The girls are talking about a new Eastern Congo Initiative project called Save Motherhood, or something along those lines.  When I speak briefly with the ECI employee, I ask her what the main focuses are down here, what the primary problems are and what the permeating NGOs are trying to accomplish and how.
          She reiterates the conversation I overheard, that the most devastating problem is a lack of access to medical treatment during pregnancy and childbirth.  It's not a problem like sexual violence, that only affects some women, but a problem that affects every woman here, because every woman here becomes a mother if she lives long enough.  Fistulas are typically reported in the Western world as caused by violent rape, yet they are more commonly caused by complications during childbirth.
          An obstetric fistula is a hole in the vaginal wall.  After days of obstructed labor with no medical intervention, a baby will die in the birth canal.  The pressure of the baby's head against the soft tissues of the vaginal wall, with the pelvic bones on the other side, causes a lack of blood flow which leads to tissue death.  This results in the opening of a hole between the vagina and rectum (rectovaginal fistula) and/or the vagina and bladder (vesicovaginal fistula).  The connections between these structures lead to chronic incontinence, which can lead to other medical problems such as recurring infection, kidney disease and death.  Fistula can also cause extreme social consequences.  A woman may be rejected by her husband and society, as a result of chronically leaking fecal matter and/or urine.
          Traumatic fistula has the same consequences, but it is caused by violent trauma to the vaginal wall, such as multiple rapes by more than one individual, or rape committed with the use of foreign objects.  Traumatic fistula happens more commonly in Congo than anywhere else in the world, but does not occur nearly as often as obstetric fistula.  A woman from UNICEF tells me that traumatic fistula accounts for only about three percent of all fistulas in North and South Kivu.
          Many of the International organizations are focusing on the horrifyingly high maternal death rate.  When I explain the problem I have generally chosen to focus on, since there are so many here to care about, the girl from ECI scoffs at the words sexual violence.
    -That's going to dry up in three years, she says, with a bit of hostility in her voice.
          I know she means funding, sensationalism, media attention.  When the fad passes through and the Western world moves on to the next horror story, the NGOs will shrivel up and die, but the problems will remain.
    -Motherhood is a much more dire crisis, she says, with a strong patronizing ring to her words.
          I understand where she's coming from, but I don't appreciate her demeaning the survivors of sexual violence, because they permeate North Kivu even more than Internationals permeate Goma.  Everyone here has had to choose a focus, two if they have strong funding; nobody can choose everything.  If you can't feed a hundred people, then just feed one, as Mother Theresa said.
          I say, you can't compare suffering.  It all has meaning, it all has weight.  The hierarchy is necessary, so create yours but respect the structure that others choose.  It's all arbitrarily based, anyway.
          The other meetings I have are similar.  Different focuses, different thoughts, same professionalism and strange hostility.  Almost everyone seems tired and closed off.  One of my meetings, however is with a woman working for HEAL Africa named Ann, and she is refreshingly friendly.  HEAL Africa is a Congolese based organization run by a man named Dr. Luisi.  I meet with Ann at Dr. Luisi's house, where he rents rooms to many people who work for the organization.  It is a sprawling estate, perched on Lake Kivu.  There are beautiful gardens that end abruptly in the lake.  I feel like I'm standing on a cliff, and I want to jump off.
    -I used to swim in the water, says Ann, watching me stare at the Lake.  But a lot of people started getting schistosomiasis and gerhardia.
          I decide to stay on the cliff.  I ask her about what HEAL Africa does and how they do it.  She responds with kindness and patience.  I relax and let my hackles come down.
    -Dr. Luisi is really wonderful, she says.  He is married to a woman from England, but he is Congolese.  There is a HEAL Africa hospital here but we also have projects in the rural areas.  The hospital treats all patients, but its primary focus is on fistula repair.
          She explains that HEAL Africa hospital is the center of the organization, but their efforts are expanding to include Gender Based Violence, development and support for survivors of sexual violence, community education to prevent sexual violence, and more.  It sounds to me like a wonderful organization, and Ann's openness and the lack of bitterness in her voice makes me like the organization even more.  I've seen their vans driving around in Lubero, but I explain to Ann that I haven't actually seen them do anything tangible.  She's a bit surprised at this, but not very.  Lubero has only recently come out of a very violent conflict, and in Congo it takes a long time to get anything to grow again after soldiers have burned the land.
          Before I left Musienene, I told Frere Maurice that I wasn't going to speak about Jesus once during my vacation.  And yet, my conversation with Catholic Relief Services turns out to be one of the most engaging.
          Janine has been in Congo for only two months, but she has been working with CRS for much longer.  I explain my situation, she explains the projects they are working on.  The projects involve a spectrum from helping people gain access to clean water to educating people in rural areas about HIV/AIDS.  They have many projects, mainly because they have a lot of funding.
    -The thing about working for the Catholic Church, she says, is that we have an opportunity to do more than all of these organizations.  And you'll see that as soon as the money in Goma leaves, the funding for aid, these organizations will all be gone in a day.  But Catholic Relief Services has been here since the 1960s, and when governmental funding dries up, we will still be here.
    -You're kind of like your own International governement, I say, and we both chuckle.
    -Not exactly, we won't still be here just because of funding.  We'll be here because we don't follow money, we follow the need.  But it is good to have support in order to help in the long-term.
          Janine and I are sitting in a small cantine drinking Coca-Colas.  Goma is much more humid than what I'm used to in the mountains; the shade of the cantine is more refreshing than the soda.
    -I'm curious what you think about a dilemma I've been having, I say.  But I don't want to be offensive or disrespectful in anyway.
          She stays relaxed and waits for me to continue.  She's been working in a religious-political atmosphere for a while, so she doesn't seem worried about what I might say.
    -I was raised a Catholic, I continue, but no longer consider myself to be of the Catholic faith.
          I need to preface my question so she understand the foundation it grows from.
    -In the rural areas, there are many girls and women who have been raped.  With COPERMA, we are trying to train accompanateurs--sort of like basic counselors--in order to give people who feel the need, someone to speak to who will support them and also maintain confidentiality.
          She's nodding encouragingly.
    -One consideration, was training the priests to be "listeners," because they are already involved in the communities, and can almost definitely be counted on for confidentiality.  My problem is, that many of these girls who have been raped, were able to take the morning after pill, which is against Church policy.  I'm worried that if a girl speaks to a Priest about her experience, he will tell her that she has sinned, which might increase her feelings of self-guilt and in general can compound the negative emotional consequences of an already horrifying experience.  Additionally, many of the girls are living in extreme poverty and they will sometimes resort to prostitution.  I don't think this is a good thing for them to be doing, but I think it's a problem that is inevitable in the face of such extreme poverty.  Thus, if we can't stop them from doing it at this point, we need to help them.  So, again, I don't want these girls talking to Priests who will tell them that condoms and contraception are also a sin.  The girls will still prostitute because they need to feed themselves and their children, but without condoms they could get a host of infections including HIV/AIDS, and they will definitely get pregnant again, which will simply make their living situation even worse.  If they live through it.
            I take a breath.
    -I'm curious about your opinion on that.
          She doesn't seem offended at all and jumps right in with a response.
    -It's definitely a difficult situation, she says.  My personal views aside, Catholic Relief Services is a Catholic organization, so we must follow Catholic law, that being Vatican law.  The Vatican does not condone use of condoms or contraception, so neither do we.  The morning after pill is considered abortion, so obviously that is also not something supported by the Church.
    -I don't know what your personal views are, but that would really frustrate me.  Considering, of course, my own views.
    -Well, look at it this way, she says leaning forward on the bench and resting her elbows on the table.  We have an opportunity to help people in so many different ways.  There are children who are dying of malnutrition, there is an extreme lack of clean water supply, there are people dying from treatable diseases.  In all of these areas, there is a drastic need, and there is a lot we can do to help.  There are organizations here that are not connected to any Church, that focus specifically on Gender Based Violence and Sexuality, for example.  So when we come across a situation that falls within those boundaries, we can call in other organizations and ask them to help in whatever way they see fit, with the expertise of their specialization.  We simply do not involve ourselves.  We don't even touch it.
          I like this perspective, something about it is calming.
    -It's kind of like the environmental organizations here, I say.  They don't help victims of violence or help internally displaced persons or refugees, because their specialty is in environmental protection, not sexual violence, etcetera.
    -Yeah, she says.  It's kind of like that.  We can't hand out condoms, and we can't tell people it's okay to take the morning after pill.  But we can still educate people on the effects of HIV/AIDS, or help them gain access to water pumps; things like that are also extremely important.
          She is, in a way, throwing my own thoughts about respecting the chosen hierarchies of others, right back in my face.
    -So, in terms of utilizing Priests as "listeners," what do you think?
    -I think you're right in believing it might not be the best idea.  Not only might it change the medical treatment or recovery of a survivor, but it would also be a conflict of interest for a Priest, in some ways.  It's a complicated situation, especially here, and it changes in every parish, every Catholic group, even every Bishop.
    -I know the Bishop here has said that it is okay to use condoms, even though that's not following with Vatican law, I interrupt.
    -Exactly.  He has also given his support to the morning after pill in instances of rape.  And in a sense he is taking a risk, because the Vatican can say that he is stepping too far outside of the bounds of our religious law, but he is also doing what he believes is the right thing to do considering the circumstances.
    -Interesting.  Do you go by what the Bishop says or what the Vatican says?
    -Vatican law is Catholic law, and we are a Catholic organization.  No matter what the Bishop says, he is making a personal choice within his region.  CRS is an arm of the entire Catholic Church, not just the Catholic Church in Congo.
          I didn't know that about the Bishop supporting the morning after pill, considered abortion from a Catholic perspective.  I'm starting to like this Bishop.  I heard that he was friends with the Chief of Lubero.  The Chief of Lubero happily accepted a bribe from the man who raped Kahambu, and let him off scott-free; I immediately jumped to conclusions and put the Bishop in my Cruel & Corrupt category.  I am hearing more and more, however, that he is a very good man.  Even Dusan thinks he's the tops.  I can even see the purpose of his relationship with the Lubero Chief.  After all, I make nice with soldiers almost every day.  I'm coming to terms with accepting the bad with the good.  Maybe it's letting go of idealism, or maybe it's just finding realism within it.  The most effective way of slowing down a train, is probably by getting the conductor to do it himself.  Even if speaking to him makes your stomach turn.
          Janine's lunch hour is up, so I thank her for her time and we head our separate ways.  I hope on a motor taxi and drive across the asphalt and lava rocks back to my hotel.  The Internationals are still stuck to their computers, and I join right in.  There was a mass rape in a village called Luvungi a few days ago.  I read articles about the tragedy as I eaves-drop on the New York Times reporter conducting his round-about interviews two tables down.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

To Goma we go...

          It becomes high time for me to go to Goma.  I miss asphalt on the roads.  I make plans to fly on one of the ten seater airplanes, but Dusan is going on Tuesday, and I haven't had a good dose of his round-about English and weaponry talk in a while.  Goma and Bukavu are the two largest cities in the Kivus.  I take the motorcycle back to Mulo, where Dusan is leaving from.  The mountains are as stunning and foggy as ever, and the Crosier brothers are equally as welcoming.
    -Amy!  You are becoming really beautiful.  You're getting so fat!
    -Thank you, George.
          I get this comment frequently now, after four kilograms and four months of essentially drinking oil.  In the Nande culture this is a huge compliment.  I am slowly getting better at resisting the urge to throw whatever heavy object I can find at the person I'm speaking to.  It's one of the most clear cultural differences for me.  I explain once, when a group of four priests is commenting on me becoming a "big woman," that in my culture this is impolite to the point of being mean.  They don't quite get it and think the idea of wanting to be in shape is absurd.  Weight here represents wealth and health.  The fatter you are, the farther from death, in a way.  I understand this better after watching Kahambu whither away into a hospital bed.
          The brothers are gradually realizing I'm uncomfortable when they make these comments, even if I don't punch anyone in the face, and I notice attempts this time around not to "compliment" me too much.  At 7:30 a.m. Dusan and I leave Mulo.  He begins my regular International Relations class as soon as we get in the car.  I ask him about the Rwandan elections, and say it seems like there wasn't too much chaos.
    -Yes, it was better than I had hoped, he says.  But Kagame is piece of shit.  Piece. of. shit.  He has pissed off Big Brother, and he will be killed, not any question.  But they will put up with him for a little while.
         He explains something involving about eight different countries that I don't have enough of a background to follow well.  It all comes down to minerals, Kabila, Kagame, and somehow, Southern Sudan, which borders Congo on the North Eastern line.
          I asked him previously if I could speak to Setraka, the head of the Mai-Mai faction in our area, who Dusan has a close professional relationship with, that may actually be real affection.  The Mai-Mai General is the man who staked a man's head at one end of Beni and left his body at the other end of the city.  He told nobody to touch the body for a week, and nobody did.  I wanted to ask him if there was some organized purpose to the rampant rape by soldiers.  I wanted to see how his face would move as he lied to me.  Dusan said he would think about it, but now, he tells me, some things have become unbalanced and even though this individual is ready to speak with me, Dusan himself will not allow it.  I'm bummed, but in reality I know I could ask any man in army green on the street and get the same lies.
    -I can tell you about this rape problem, but you cannot speak to him about this, he says in the car, while puffing on one of his perpetual cigarettes.  There are two boxes in the car, and this is a six hour ride through one of the most dangerous regions in Congo.  We won't be able to stop and buy more.
    -You can tell me what the motivation is, beside the obvious, for the mass level of rape in this country?
    -Yes.  I can tell you.  I am Dusan, I am genius.
          He chuckles to himself.  He says this about twenty times every conversation and I believe it more and more with every passing day.
    -The first time this happens, he continues, is in Bosnia, yes?  You know Bosnia?
    -Yes, and I don't know much about things there, but I know there was a huge incidence of rape in order to blur ethnic lines, or something like that.
    -Correct!  You are junior genius.
    -Of course I am; I'm Amy.
          He laughs.
    -I like this!  It is good to be proud of your name.  Okay, so.  Amy.  He looks at me for emphasis.
    -Bosnia is first time this happens.  In Bosnia, as you say, it has organized motivation.  There is long history and yuck-n-yuck-n-yuck-n-yoo.  Organized motivation is, mix the blood.  Congo, there is no motivation.  Believe me in this, there is no organized motivation.  You must consider culture.  Culture, tribalism and poverty.  Every woman in Nord-Kivu is prostitute.
          He looks at me again, waiting for me to fight him.  He always has a follow-up, so I wait.
    -Okay, every woman is prostitute because every woman is poor. This is not always case, of course, but generally speaking, if you offer money to girl, she will go with you.  Because, she needs money.  She needs money because she needs to eat food and children need to eat food.  So, money is power, yes?  Money is power, and gun is power.  Men here see, if you don't have money, gun is same thing because gun is power.  If you don't sleep with me, I shoot on you.  I do not understand brain, if this is bran, that can be aroused when woman says No!  He strikes the air with his hand and continues.  I do not think this is brain, and I do not understand this.  But, with poverty and chaos of war, plus tribalism in which woman is nothing compared to man, it is not any problem for soldier to rape woman or girl.  Because girl is nothing.
    -So here is my question, I interject.  There is poverty and war in so many countriest.  But this, aside from Bosnia, is the only country where there has been such a massive movement of rape.  Why here?  What sets Congo poverty and chaos apart?
    -You are only junior genius, I cannot expecting you to understand this now.  But you will try, okay?  You must keep in mind culture.  You cannot look at this from America perspective.  If you are Tutsi, you are maybe top, then maybe Hutu, then whoever-whoever, then last before animal is pygmy.  Safest man in Rwanda, can say anything he is wanting.  He can talk whatever he thinks about Kagame himself, and Kagame will not touch him.  He will never ever touch him.  You know why?
    -No, why?
   -He is safe because he is pygmy!  And Kagame will not put him in jail because this is treating him as human.
   -Oh, jeez.  That's so much worse than an organized motivation.
          Women are raped because men have power, and men don't see women as human to hurt.  I don't fully agree with him, but in the sense of soldiers, I can see this coming into play. 
    -But you cannot ask Setraka this.  And he will deny it, and if he does not deny it is happening, he will simply tell you same thing as I am telling you. 
          I'm silent for a bit.  As we head south there are more and more soldiers on the road, mostly in the form of random sentries of three or four men.  Suddenly, Dusan slams on the brakes as we pass a trio of soldiers.
    -My friend!  He leans across me and reaches his hand out of the window to one of the soldiers.
          The man shakes Dusan's hand, and then mine.  He doesn't smile, but crosses his arms and rests his elbows on my open window.
    -Dusan, it has been a long time since I am seeing you.
          His English startles me.
    -Yes, yes.  I am always in the bush, my friend.
    -You hear FDLR are joining with ADF-Nalu?  The man laughs.  He has slightly lighter skin than most of the Congolese and he has scars on his right arm, where the sleeve is pulled up slightly.  His face is unshaved but clean.
    -Fucking Nalu, he continues.  I am going to do an operation, big operation.  We are going to kick their asses.
           I cringe at his words, but quickly straighten my expression.  I'm pretty sure he hasn't seen it.  I imagine the civilians fleeing their villages as this man directs his "operation."  I imagine the girls running through the woods, trying to escape the bullets, only to find a man with a different kind of weapon waiting.
    -My men are all around here, he says and swings his arm around, pointing to the mountains surrounding us.  I am going to do serious mission.  But this Foster, he is in my way.
    -Yes, yes, I know.  I am arranging the things.
         Dusan always references "the things," whatever the things are.
    -You are arranging the things?  Okay, but my problem is, Foster is major genocidaire.
          He spits out the last word.  As if he hasn't killed hundreds of civilians, and is somehow morally better than this Foster, simply because he's using a different word for killer.
     -This is possible, says Dusan.  He sounds uncomfortable, and I can tell he's caught in between two different groups and needs to maintain a balance he has been working on establishing between them.  He has to tread lightly.  This, I guess, is what demobilization is.  There is a massive truck beeping at us from behind.  Dusan pulls over and gets out to talk to the soldier.  I am not about to hover around their conversation.  I trek down a path to pop-a-squat, but there isn't much cover.  Just across from me, about a quarter-mile on the opposite mountainous peak, a group of people is forming to watch the muzungu pee.  I go quickly.  When I get back Dusan is finishing up his conversation and we both get back in the car.
    -That is very smart man, he says once we're driving again.  He is FRDC but trained in American camp, and he is only superior officer who actually does the work and makes sure his men are doing what they should be doing.  It is impossible to find FRDC trained in American camp.  It is even more impossible to find competent man in FRDC.
    -Who is Foster?
    -He is FDLR.
    -The FRDC and the Nalu have both been giving me problems, but not much from the FDLR, I say.
    -What do you mean Nalu are giving you problems?
    -Well, they're not giving me problems, personally.  But I've been talking to a lot of girls who were raped by Nalu soldiers.  Mostly from Graben and Isale.
    -You will not go there anymore.  You will not even speak to anyone close to Nalu.
    -What?  That's crazy talk.
         People who tell me what I will and will not do typically don't get a very good reception.  Even if I agree with them, I have a tendency to argue and then do exactly as they advised.
    -I am telling you, do not go near even woman who is raped by Nalu soldier.  If they are thinking you cause them problems, they kill you.  Not any problem.  They can kill you in Lubero if they want.
    -If a woman comes to me and says she was raped and hasn't been to a hospital, I'm going to help her get to FEPSI even if it was Nalu.
    -You will not do this.  Not even I can protect you if this is involving Nalu.  That is extent of how dangerous they are.  I cannot protect you when it comes to Nalu, and this is my region.  Because I am not working with Nalu.
    -Okay, okay.
          He's getting fired up.  I'm still doing follow-up with several women from Isale who were raped by Nalu and this is in no way going to stop me.  Nalu soldiers have moved down into Graben anyway.  If they were still in Isale I would take his advice.  Maybe.
          He starts going on one of his usual tangents about weapons.  Apparently, someone already tried to assassinate Kagame by shooting down his plane but they missed.
    -Only idiot can miss with this weapon; only someone who is learning how to shoot it by watching movies.  If this is me, I do not miss.  Sure.
          He keeps speaking about the different types of rocket launchers, fire and forget versus follow-through.  With fire and forget, you can shoot the rocket and then look away and not worry about it.  It will always hit the target.  With the latter type, a bit of an older model, the sight of the rocket launcher helps direct the rocket until it is close enough to the heat of the targeted object to direct itself.  The "idiot" who tried to assassinate Kagame had the latter, but fired and forgot.
    -Complete idiot.  It does not make any sense.
          I see a large boulder in the road, but there is enough space on the side to pass.  Shortly after the boulder, there are two banana trees laid across the road.  The car has trouble getting over them but Dusan keeps going and we're able to dislodge them from the wheels.  Obstacles in sequence are not normal.  The roads are terrible, yet well-kept.  We both know that this could possibly mean something unpleasant.
          Sure enough, after the next bend is a group of children standing in the road.  Some are carrying long sticks draped in vines, with a triangle of sticks at the top.  Dusan keeps driving and the kids move mostly out of the way, but I can see the panic and anger rise in their faces.  One of the older kids, of about fourteen, picks up a large rock and pulls his arm back to throw it at the front windshield.  We aren't far enough past them and the stone would surely shatter the glass.  Dusan again slams on the breaks.  The child's arm drops down, and the kids quickly swarm around the car.  Dusan accelerates again, knocking the older boy out of the way.  I roll up my window and duck towards the center of the car; as the boys cock their arms back again, I wait for the shatter of the window.  There are several cracks as the rocks hit the side of the white Land Rover.  Again, the car skids to a stop.  Dusan throws the car into reverse and speeds backwards a few feet towards the children.  It only takes a few feet and the threat of being run-over to make the kids scatter.
    -What do you think they were doing?
    -This is Mai-Mai demonstration, you can tell because of how they are dressed.  Not organized by adults, just by kids who think they are big men.  But you see, only few feet backwards and ping.  They are gone.  They know I will smash them and they take smash seriously.
         I can tell he's slightly rattled and angry.  After a few minutes he changes the subject, but there's still irritation in his voice.
    -You try here, but not always can you do right thing.  I told you, recently, I get 37 child-soldiers out of the bush.  This is big deal, it is not easy to get 37 child-soldiers at one time.  I bring all of these boys out and I bring them to Save the Children in Goma.  They do not have housing for them there, so they find local families to take them in for a few dollars, while they arrange the things.  Three dollars a day for 37 children is $111.00 times seven days is $777.00, and maybe it will be more than seven days, so around $1,000.00.  Families who are taking these children in are doing so because they have now a few more dollars in pocket each night, and then they are able to use the children in the fields to help them, which is hard labor.  So, now children are with families that use them for labor, because of poverty it is necessary, and children are now wanting to go back to the bush where I supposedly "rescued" them, because they are happier there.
          I can tell he's frustrated by this, but also resigned.
    -The first day we talked, I say, you were telling me not to let anything here touch me too much.  I argued with you a bit, but now I understand.  You can't let it touch you too much, because there's just too much to be touched by; it'll overwhelm you.
    -It will eat your heart, and it will eat your brain.  And then you really won't be able to help.  You will become senior genius, I think.  Maybe soon.
          We both laugh.  It's so easy to try and help, but unintentionally make things worse.  Maybe not worse, but not necessarily better.  I explain how glad I am to be working with a Congolese organization, because they all keep me in line, and I am able to ask them at every turn if what we're doing is a good idea in context of culture.  They understand that I'm not familiar with the culture, and they let me know their opinions about my ideas at every turn.  Most of the time, I'm wrong; but I'm learning.
          We drive through a savannah that Dusan explains used to be a famous tourist attraction; before the war there would be the typical African safari vans driving through searching for animals.  We see several baboons on the road, and almost have one climb into the car as I'm taking a picture, but Dusan drives off just in time, as always.  There are no more tourists, but the number of soldier sentries increases as we go deeper into the park.
          I see something ahead in the road and smile.  Within an instant we go from violent lurching to the sensation of flying.  Asphalt.  Dusan notices me smiling.
    -This is first time you see asphalt in four months, yes? He's laughing at me.
    -Yes!  And it feels great!
         We get to Goma with no further interruptions, aside from two small break-downs which are quickly fixed, and several stops to pee.  Both cigarette packs are gone.  As we drive in, the scenery of Congo that I know changes completely.  The dust is still everywhere, but it changes from light brown to ash.  The ground is covered in lava stones., from the last time Mount Nyiragongo erupted, in 2002.  The houses are built on and out of the black, porous stones.  There are so many people on the sides of the roads, and they're more forward than the people in Butembo.  The kids don't just wave, they come up to the window and rap on the glass, staring at me.  I feel like a fish in a tank and someone is pounding on my glass.
         We stop by several UN compounds, asking about Dusan's car being fixed, arranging his transport back to Beni.  He is flying home in two days, and I will be without his sound wisdom and soldier-warnings for three weeks.  After about seven and a half hours of driving, and four kilograms of dust accumulating in my lungs, Dusan leaves me at a hotel and we agree to meet at a club around the corner at eight p.m.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Just like that

          Brother Maurice calls it "auto-defense," I call it unfortunate and beautiful.  At night in Butembo, a child and a jug sit quietly outside each small house.  Kids take turns, every hour the family sentry changes.  When a car passes, overloaded with soldiers, the rhythm starts.  Maman Marie imitates the motions using the wooden table as her jug.
          Boom, boom, boom--rest--boom--rest--boom.

          Just listening to the thudding of her hands hitting the wood makes my heart beat faster.  When one jug lights up with sound, the neighboring sentry picks up the same beat, until all of Butembo is pounding with rhythm, and everyone knows that les bandits have arrived.
          There haven't been as many deaths in Butembo, since the song began.  I live just outside of the city, so I can't hear the warning rhythm, but I imagine it would be a mix of beauty and fear.  The Rwandan elections have passed, and I haven't seen Dusan in over a month.  He has been in and out of the bush, and back and forth from Goma, doing his best to keep the men and their weapons calm.  I spend most of my time in the Kavingu center with Maman Marie and either Jean-Paulm le psycologue, or Urbain as my translator.
          At least every other day, after the forty minute ride up the mountain, Urbain or Jean-Paul sits next to me in the dark, concrete room, as I open the blinding screen of my computer.  The office is a small wooden table, one chair and a bench or two, depending on the day.  With a friend next to me to translate the Kinande, and to feel as saddened by the world as I do, we talk to the girls one by one.  All of the girls start speaking with fortitude, and sometimes, even a bit of attitude.  But when the question arises of what she has experienced, almost all see that fortitude crumble beneath what they have seen.
          In one way it's good that there are so many, because they have friends who understand.  On one day, when the room was even darker because of the rain pouring outside, a troop of three girls came in, one right after the other. 
         Kavira Devote is the first of the trio.  I had forgotten how small a thirteen year old can be.  She is wearing a white dress that is torn and hasn't been washed in many days.  Though the dress is tiny, it hangs loosely from her body.  She smiles a lot, with the nervousness of a girl.  I can tell she's excited to be talking to me; I'm more of a celebrity in the rural areas than anywhere else.  She's also nervous and I can see the soft cup of skin at the base of her neck, where the clavicles meet, beating fast and hard.
          I ask her the lighter questions first, to get her used to me; her name, her age, where she's living now.  I like this part of the conversation.  Eventually, though, I have to get to the main question.  It turns excitement into grief in less than a second.  I've never seen anything move eyes so quickly to the ground.
          She doesn't know where her parents are.  Everyone fled in their own directions when the soldiers came.  She saw the soldiers pillaging the village, but she didn't see anything else.  She was raped by one soldier.  She was twelve.  She fled with a group of girls; the group ran into the military.  The military started to rape them all in the woods.
    -Just like that?  I interject.  All at the same time, just like that, in the woods?
          Jean-Paul is with me today.  He translates, even though my question is pointless.  We both know the answer.
    -Yes, just like that.
    -God.  They're truly animals, I say.  I just don't understand it at all.
          Jean-Paul looks down at the table.
           We're both silent for a minute, trying to comprehend the scene in our heads, and hers.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who doesn't get anywhere.  Jean-Paul explains to Devote that FEPSI is free and we will arrange for her to come to Butembo for treatment if she would like.  She says yes, she would like that.  It will be her first time getting medical treatment.
          As Devote leaves she smiles at the next girl coming in, in a way that indicates friendship.  The next girl is also tiny, of course, she's twelve.  She has a green scarf around her neck.  Her name is Kavugho.  She's extremely thin and more nervous than Devote about speaking to me.  As the conversation progresses she hunches into the wall and fidgets with the scarf, pulling it up to cover her mouth.  She speaks so softly into the green fabric, I'm amazed Jean-Paul can understand a word she says.
          She doesn't know if her parents are alive, everyone fled in different directions.  She was raped by a civilian when she was alone, running through the bush.  She was eleven.
          In one way it's good they were so young, because they couldn't get pregnant.
          The next girl comes in, and again I notice a brief exchange of friendship.  They clasp hands for a moment.  She has a chubby face and a body that somehow looks as if she's missing a few bones.  There's something not quite stable about her movements.  Her name is Kavira.  She doesn't speak with the same nervous emotion as the other two.  She speaks softly, with a somber expression throughout the entire conversation.  It makes her seem older.
          She's thirteen now, she was twelve when she was raped by a civilian.  She doesn't know if her parents are alive.  The man trapped her and raped her as she ran from the soldiers.  After she was raped, a man with a bicycle found her.  He helped her onto the bicycle and they rode away from the village together.  He helped her off of the bicycle when they knew she was safe again.  She's not healing very well.  She didn't go to the hospital and she still has pain between her legs and in her abdomen.
          I ask her if she has any support here, and see a flicker of a smile.  She says the two girls who were just here are her friends.  They make it easier to move on.
          I tell her thank you.  She gets up and says, "ushale jambo," stay well.

          It's the end of the day.  Jean-Paul and I have nothing to say to each other.  We both walk out into the rain; I don't even attempt to cover myself.  I let the droplets soak me through.


Sunday, August 8, 2010


          In terms of hierarchy on a grand scale, urgency is number one, which moves Isale up on my list of scattered priorities, when I receive some money from the States.  Maman Marie agrees, and doesn't hesitate when I ask if we should spend the money on the cluster of humanity in the bush.  While she wants to develop the COPERMA centers, it's only because the centers are helping people.  For Maman Marie, it doesn't matter where you're helping or who, as long as you're trying in some way.
          In the office, Urbain, Maman Marie, Hangie and I have the same conversation we had about two weeks ago.  How many beans, how much fufu powder, how much porridge powder, how many people?  This time we throw in empty jugs to carry water, potato semence- seeds, soap, rabbits and guinea pigs.  It takes us a while to figure these things out.  We want to help sustainably, but have to keep the soldiers in mind.
    -We need to give them the things that were stolen, says Hangie.  He's a skinny guy with a stutter and a very direct manner.  We've had several brief disagreements because of our different styles, but always in a friendly way.  He talks frequently about how much he loves his wife, so it would be difficult for me to not like him.
    -We need to buy the things that were stolen, I say, but it won't make sense if we buy things that can be stolen easily again.  Then we're worse off than we are now because we've given a bunch of goats and chickens to the soldiers.
    -But the people need those things.
    -But it doesn't make sense if they're going to be stolen again!
          He looks at the desk for a brief moment and then looks back up at me.
    -Nous sommes au Congo.  We are in Congo.
          Everyone laughs at the blunt truthfulness of his statement.
    -Ca c'est vrai!  I say.  That is true! 
          It's an important thing to remember.  With all the planning and trying, there is still a war going on, which means you can have the proverbial rug pulled out at anytime.  There's nothing you can do about it and when you start weaving another rug, a soldier will probably swipe it again.  You just have to keep weaving.
    -It's best if we separate it into two sections, says Maman Marie in her shaky voice.  Urgency and development.  We can't just give them food we should also try to leave something that will help in the long term.
    -I agree, I say.  Rabbits and guinea pigs are a good idea, they make babies quickly.
    -And it's easy to hide them, says Urbain.  He makes a circular shape with his arms.  You can keep guinea pigs in an area this big in the bush and they'll be fine.
          We decide on the rabbits and guinea pigs as things that will proliferate, and when the beans etc. run out, you can eat the little animals too.  We program Isale into our schedules for Tuesday.  Urbain and Hangie will start buying the items on Monday, while Maman Marie and I are at the Kavingu girl-mother center.
          When I arrive Tuesday morning there are no tires burning in Butembo, even though there was a man killed the night before.  Apparently he was a notorious killer in Butembo who was then killed by the soldiers for whatever reason, so they determined he wasn't worth a tire.  There are black patches where the tires used to be and clumps of rubber thread scattered throughout the city.
          Hangie goes over the things that were bought the day prior.  I provided the Presidents, they did all of the work, as always.  I couldn't help even if I could speak Kinande, since the prices would double the second a store owner saw me.
          Ten empty jugs, 250 kg of beans, 100 kg fufu powder, 100 kg porridge powder, 20 guinea pigs, 100 kg potato root seeds, six empty containers to hold root seeds, four large bags to hold porridge powder, 30 sacs for distribution of food.
    -What about the rabbits?  I ask Hangie.
    -The price was higher than we thought; eight dollars each instead of five.
    -Should we buy more guinea pigs?  We still have the hundred dollars set aside for the rabbits.  We could buy 50 guinea pigs with that!
          I would have been giddy about this conversation as a child.  Not to mention, the guinea pigs they previously bought are under a wicker basket in the room.  Ten or so are under the basket, ten or so are in a large bag.  I try not to think of how cruel it feels to be keeping ten guinea pigs in a bag.  They're going to be eaten soon anyway.  There's already too much cruelty to worry about, I have to let the guinea pigs go.  Urbain has walked in during the conversation.
    -We have to buy the rabbits, he says.
    -Why not more guinea pigs?  They're cheaper.
    -Because rabbits have more meat.  And my friend once started breeding rabbits with ten rabbits.  After two years he had 2,000.
    -2,000?  I guess the saying is true about humping like rabbits.
          I say the last part to myself in English.
    -Nothing.  That's great, let's stick with the rabbits but buy fewer of them.
    -We can buy fewer rabbits, says Maman Marie, who has also entered at this point.  But we can keep them in Kavingu, we have cages there and we can breed them.  In five months we can double the number of rabbits and then distribute them.
          I take the old calculator again and figure out the diminished quantity with the now expensive price.
    -We can buy twelve rabbits.
    -In five months we'll have at least 24, probably more, says Maman Marie.
          There's a commotion to my right and a flurry of squealing.  One of the many "apprentice" students is bent over chasing a guinea pig across the concrete floor.  The ten or so under the wicker basket have all managed to escape.  I laugh at the scene as Maman Marie and the rest leave the room to get their things ready for the trip.  The male apprentices are outside loading everything into the car.
          I watch the girl as she finally catches the squeaking rodent in her hand and sticks it in the bag.  She easily catches the other nine and puts them all in the same bag.  I should be a rabbit farmer.  I could set up shop here and help rabbits proliferate, then distribute relatively sustainable sources of food and income to anybody I wanted.  I imagine walking through hundreds of rabbit cages under the Congo sun, all a source of self-multiplying food.  Under the wicker basket is a section of moist little brown turds.  There are a lot of turds; they cover the entire concrete area where the wicker basked used to be.  I wish you could eat turds.  Everyone could eat one meal and just keep recycling.  In a way you can, I guess, since turds help fertilize plants that we eat and that cows eat etc.  Everything feeds everything.  I notice how strange my line of thought is and laugh to myself.  It's amazing though, how the world is set-up for us to survive, sustainably.  We seem to be our own worst problem.
   -Urbain!  Maman Marie screams from the small office.
    -He's not here, I yell back.  I pick up my things and walk into the room.
          She's inside stapling the receipts from the things we've purchased together.
    -We used to have 27 cows, she says without provocation.
          I sit down.  Twenty-seven cows is a huge source of sustenance.
    -We had 27 cows and hundreds of rabbits.  That was years ago though.  When the war came the soldiers came and everything disappeared.  They stole all of the cows, all of the rabbits and now all we have left is the land, which we can't even use.  We can't buy new animals to start breeding again because the soldiers will come through and we'll simply be feeding the ranks.
          She speaks with a bit of sadness in her voice and keeps her eyes on the stapler and the motion of the receipts.  She sounds tired; tired of the ground moving under her feet every time she starts to build something.
    -Our specialization is farming and cultivation, she continues.  We used to breed rabbits, and families could eat them and the kids could sell them in the market and with the money they could go to school.  Now, there are no more rabbits, so the kids don't go to school.
          I got this impression from what COPERMA stands for, the equivalent of Community of Planters and Farmers in the Kivu Region.  As she speaks it becomes clear that her passion and the organization she started, for herself and for others, was to help through cultivation and farming; how to keep animals well, how to breed them, how to utilize seeds and land.  When the war started everyone in the communities became scattered, became victims, became constantly in hiding or on the run.  Since then she's been doing damage control.  Hangie later tells me they don't want to change the name because they hope one day they can go back to what they originally started out to do.
          The apprentice students have finished loading the truck, so Maman Marie and I leave the office.  The truck is filled with bags and containers and the two sacks of guinea pigs.  A few students climb into the back.
    -We can't have too many people, says Maman Marie to the group.  And no young girls.
          There's another woman coming who speaks French and teaches at the Center in Kavingu.  She and I are the only women getting in the truck, aside from Maman Marie.
    -If the soldiers see young girls, it won't be good, she says and walks off without another word.
          It's only ten a.m. and we're ready to leave, so I feel solid about the trip.  The difference between just thirty minutes is amazing.  At 5:30 p.m. there won't be a single soldier on the road, but at 6 o'clock the specks of army green start separating themselves from the green of the bush and move onto the brown dirt roads.  We climb into the car, four of us in the back and around six in the truck bed.  
          It takes twice as long as the last time to get to Isale.  The truck is carrying a huge amount of weight and it creaks as we lurch over the bumps in the road.  I wonder for a while if a car can split.  In Isale, it's early enough in the day that the recently displaced group is wandering in the road.  They are still mostly in the expanse of bush where we left them the last time.  Maman Marie gets straight to work.  She marches down the dirt path to the spot where the majority of the people are milling about.  I follow.
    -We're going to take down all of their information so we can see who needs help the most.
          We've already decided to give the food to the families with the most young children, and mothers who are still "on the tit."  Which is almost everyone.  I'm ready to help but there's not much I can do without Kinande as a tool on my belt.  I'm deaf and mute and can only make faces at the children.  I stand just off the dirt path watching Maman Marie start to talk to the mass of people surrounding her.  I understand now why so many of the students came.  They are separating themselves from the mass with clipboards, paper and pens.  Gradually, Maman Marie gets the people around her to disperse and form four smaller globs around the students.
          Urbain taps me on the shoulder from the path.
    -I need to speak with you.
          He doesn't smile, which is unusual for him.
    -Is everything okay?
    -There are the two girls we spoke to before who were raped, and another girl who was still in the bush at the time.  They are waiting to speak with you.  Should we go now or wait until the food is distributed?
    -Let's go now.
          Urbain leads the way up the path.
    -Did all of the six women who were raped get to the hospital?
    -I believe so, that's what Marcela and Devote say.
    -Well that's good.
          At the top of the path we are back on the dirt road and Urbain leads me to one of the mud houses.  Just inside the darkness of the hut, where the light from the doorway still illuminates faces, Marcela and Devote are sitting on small wooden stools.  There is a third young woman on the floor next to Devote with a child of about five years lounging on her lap.  The lounging little girl has eyebrows that would make Frida Kahlo blush.  The young woman, who is clearly the child's mother, is tiny.  Her hair is corn-rowed with the ends sticking up in the back, making her look a bit like small bird.  Her eyes are huge and her cheekbones are beautifully square.  She looks at me with the same sadness and pain that Marcela and Devote are still wearing.  There are two other wooden chairs in the little entry room, Urbain and each I take a seat.

          Urbain immediately starts speaking to her in Kinande.  I understand Iwende- What is your name, and she says Kavira Esperance.  Urbain asks another question and the girl starts speaking rapidly.
    -She says she was raped in the field in Kisangani.  It was one soldier.
    -Did she go to the hospital?
    -She says yes, she was in the hospital for one day, she spoke with the Doctor.
    -Did she take the medication to prevent the pregnancy?
          He asks my questions.  The girl says something that clearly indicates confusion.
    -She says she doesn't know.
          I'm worried about this.
    -Did she take a little pill, one sole pill?
          He asks.
    -She says the Doctor did give her some medication but she doesn't know what it was for.
          I sigh and write in my notebook.  This is the opposite end of the spectrum and both extremes aren't good.  I hoped the Doctors would know enough to explain the idea of the morning after pill and get informed consent.  Despite my personal views, I don't want people to be taking it without knowing what they're taking and making a conscious decision to do so.  I don't want Doctors to give it out just because it's available, if miraculously so.  I want it to be available so women have the option if they understand what it is and make the informed decision themselves.  It's too late now, though.
    -She's 19, continues Urbain.  She's married, her husband is the one who encouraged her to go the the hospital.
    -He was calm about it?  He didn't react negatively?
    -No, he was sad for what happened to her but he just wants her to feel better.

           I smile at her and she smiles back but sinks shyly into the wall behind her.
     -And how are the other girls evolving?
          I look to Devote and Marcela who are sitting silently, listening to Esperance's story with solemn faces.  
    -They say they are evolving well.  Devote has pain still, she took medication and it went away for a while but now it is back.  It hurts her to urinate and even just walking is painful.
          Devote is the woman who is four months pregnant, and has already had 3 miscarriages.
    -She should go back to the hospital and talk to the Doctor, especially because of the baby.
          Urbain translates this.
    -She says she is ready to go and will go when she can.
          There's noise from outside the hut.  Urbain stops talking and motions to a woman standing about thirty feet away.  She seems to be beckoning him outside.  He gets up and walks out to speak with her.  I'm left in the hut with the three young women.  It's a bit bigger than most of the houses in that it has three closet-sized rooms rather than two, plus the small entry way that we are sitting in.  The walls are made out of criss-crossing sticks with mud plastered in between.  The roof is made out of tin, but I can see that where the tin meets at the peak of the roof there is a gap.  I wonder if the rain affects the mud walls.  The houses are small and bare but formidable.  I'm in awe of the woven structures.  Nothing is bought, except the tin in some instances, some houses have only straw roofs.  Everything is found, cut, carried and constructed from the bush and by hand.  I may know how to use a computer but I could never build a house.
          I smile at the women but I can't cross the divide of language drawing a curtain between us.  Urbain seems to be arguing outside.  I leave the hut and walk across the small dirt expanse to where he's standing.  He is arguing feverishly about something with a woman, going back and forth in loud Kinande.
    -What's the problem?  I ask.
         He sighs.
    -This woman is one of the familles d'accueil.  She wants to know why they aren't getting food too.  She thinks they should get some food since they receive the displaced families.
    -Oh jeez, I was worried this would happen.
          I speak directly to the woman.  Urbain translates as I go.
    -We brought the food for the families with the greatest need.  Everyone here has need, we know that, but we can't help everyone.  So we are trying to figure out who are the people who have the greatest need.  Who has many young children, who has malnutrition, who is ill, who is still nursing, for example.  This will be out of the people who are displaced because they no longer have their fields at all or their homes.  It is wonderful that you are helping them, but you know as well as I do that there are people here with greater need than you.
          When I finish the woman glares at me with anger but also understanding.    She agrees with me, but still badly wants that food.  She picks up yelling at Urbain again.  I look back around to the hut with girls waiting inside.  There is now another woman in the darkness of the doorway peering out at me.  I don't remember seeing anyone else in the hut and I didn't see anyone go in.
    -I'm going to check on Maman Marie, I say, turning back to Urbain.
          I head back across the road and down the dirt pathway.  As I pass the truck, I see that all of the food has been separated into tens of little green bags.  They're organized by content and arranged in an almost perfect larger square.  It looks like a square of little water bubbles, or green squirts of frosting.  Each of the largest bags has a bar of soap on top.  Take-away kits.  I peek into the back of the truck bed as one of the apprentice students is dumping guinea pigs out of the bags.  Three fall out, stiff and plastered with feces.
    -Damn, three are dead, someone says.  They can't even eat them.
          I wonder why it is that humans can only eat animals we kill.  The guinea pigs died in the last few minutes, yet everyone knows they're no longer edible.  At $2.00 a-pop I make a mental note to buy three more, even though realistically I will have no idea who to give them to.  I'll have a rabbit farm and a guinea pig farm.  I'll walk around with a basket of both on my back, handing them out to random people in the road.  I can wear a sign that says Edible and Sustainable!
    -Amy!  Urbain comes jogging after me.  He seems to have finally been able to extricate himself from the discussion.
    -There is another woman who was raped, he says.  She is waiting to speak with you.
          This must be the face peering out at me that seemed to materialize out of the darkness.  I walk back with him to the house.  Inside I see only the three girls who were already there, and the little Frida Kahlo.  I sit down on the chair.  When I sit, I face into another room of the hut and there is a striking woman sitting across from me, just inside the room.  She is sitting sideways, so as not to look at us, but her eyes flick up towards me when I enter.  Her eyes are quick, deep and defined.  I want to stare at them, but they frighten me.  She seems older than the three girls seated near me, and somehow a lot more affected.
    -Wahay, I say.  Iwende?
           She looks up at my Kinande.  Her eyes are going to push me backwards off of my chair; they are so sharp and angry.  They shift quickly back down to her skirt.
    -Valerie, she says.  Kavira Valerie.
           Urbain picks up the questioning.  Urbain is so soft-spoken and kind when he talks to the women.  I don't speak Kinande but there are certain words I pick up and whatever direct questions I ask, I can hear the round-about format of respect with which he frames them.
    -She is fifty-five years old.  She was walking in the field with her friend and they were leading one of the goats home when they saw three soldiers.  When they tried to run, one soldier chased after the goat and the other two ran after the women.  The soldiers raped them.  One soldier to each woman.
    -When did this happen?  I ask, expecting her to say around a month ago.
    -July 13th, she fires back immediately.
    -Did she go to the hospital?
    -Yes, on July 14th.
    -How has her husband reacted?
          I want to make sure the women aren't being also shunned by their husbands after an already traumatizing experience.  I've heard of this happening.  Urbain poses the question.  When the woman hears it, the lines in her face relax and so does her posture.  She stops fidgeting with her skirt for a moment and looks at us.
    -He went with her to the hospital.  He's calm, he's sad but he is calm about it.  He asked if he too can participate in the counseling or if there's anything he can do to help her with medication or anything else.
          I smile at her.  She smiles back briefly, but only a flicker, before she looks back down at her skirt.  Urbain asks another question.
     -I asked her about stigma, he says after she has finished her response.  She says that in the village people started pointing at her and calling her "the victim."  She went to the Doctor and asked him, "why are you publicizing my private information?"  But the Doctor didn't give her a response and denied telling anyone.
          Valerie suddenly picks up speaking again without a question to prompt it.  Urbain listens patiently.
    -She says, you think you're alone.
          She motions towards the other girls with her hand.
    -But then you see, no I'm not alone, there are others.
          Her tone moves from angry to soft.  She knows this is a bad thing, as much as it helps.
    -If you would like to come to Butembo, the services at FEPSI are free.  You can speak to a psychologist there who might be able to help in some small way, I say.
          I'm starting to doubt the power of psychology.  I can't see how talking to a random man in a white coat in Butembo could possibly help these women, but I know I'm simply feeling overwhelmed by their pain and their strength.
    -They say they are all ready to go to FEPSI, but they have no transport.  It's very difficult to get to Butembo.
    -I will arrange to bring a car to pick them up and bring them back.
          Valerie stands up abruptly after Urbain translates and yells to someone outside.  I'm worried she'll leave before I can find some small way to help her, but she sits back down.  A skinny woman with blood-shot eyes and hair frizzing out of her head scarf walks over to the hut carrying a mail purse.  She pulls out a letter, hands it to Urbain and sits on the chair next to Valerie.  I don't want extra people in the hut, but the woman seems to be Valerie's friend and we're no long er talking about the personal details.
          The letter doesn't say much.  It's a referral letter from the hospital for Valerie if she goes to FEPSI.  The Doctor heard that we were trying to get the women to FEPSI and wrote referral letters for all of them.  There is no information on the letter other than her name, the Doctor's name and the name of the hospital.
    -This woman is one of the group, Urbain says, pointing to the skinny woman with the fiery eyes.
          The woman is sitting straight up in the chair staring directly at me.  Valerie however, leans forward and puts her face in her hands and stays there.  I don't understand for a moment, but then realize what group we're sitting in.
    -Oh.  I take out my notebook again.
          The woman speaks before I get a chance to ask her any questions.  She speaks with an assertiveness and anger that the others didn't have. 
    -Her name is Kahambu Hangie.  She was also in the field, four years ago now.
          I imagine the four years might contribute to the anger over-powering the sadness.
    -She had a sugar cane field.  One day, two soldiers found her where she was working, they said, "here is a woman," and they both raped her.  She had her farm, she had the sugar cane field.  The field helped a lot because she could pay for the kids to study.  Once the soldiers came she couldn't go to the field anymore, so now the kids don't go to school.  There are seventy, he adds.

    -Seventy who?  She has seventy kids? Not possible.  I look at her skeptically.
          Urbain verifies.
    -Seventy women in these villages who have been raped since 2005.
          I soften my look and feel like an ass.
    -It was really bad between 2005-2008.  They thought it had moved on but now it is back.
          Hangie lifts her hands and head in the air and begins speaking to the roof of the hut.
    -She wants to know what grace of God is sending this horror back to them.
          Valerie is shaking her head back and forth slowly, not lifting her hand from her eyes.  I need a magic word to make these women stop hurting so much.  I never see Congolese women lean forward in this way.  They have impeccable strength in their backs; beautiful posture.  I'm like an ape compared to them.  The simple slant of Valerie's back further illuminates her pain.
    -Did Hangie go to the hospital?
    -Yes, says Urbain as she speaks.  She went to the hospital, and a little while after the rapes she got a microbe.
          Hangie points to some spots on her skin where she seems to have little rash outbreaks.
    -She had an abscess as well but they excised it.
          I'm trying to imagine what sort of sexually-transmitted disease she could be referring to but my brain can't focus on anything but the words HIV/AIDS.  I don't know the symptoms well, but I will make sure she makes it to FEPSI with the others to have an HIV test performed.  The purpose of knowing is that FEPSI provides ARV medication for free.
    -Aside from food, please ask them what they need.  I can't promise anything but I will promise to try and help them in some way.
          Valerie sits up at my question and speaks at length in response. After she is finished each girl says a few words to Urbain.
    -Their work was in the field and now they've lost that.  Physical rape and material rape, he adds.  They can't go back, but they need to have work.  They say maybe you could help them start small businesses so they can support their families.He moves from left to right:
    -Hangie would like to sell peanuts, Valerie would like to sell clothing, Marcela and Devote want to be seamstresses, Esperance wants to sell fish.
          Sewing machines are expensive and pointless if the girls don't already know how to sew, but I can definitely help the others start up their small road-side businesses.  There are seventy, though.
    -Please let them know I am going to try to help them.  If they give me a day that works for them, I will come back with a car and bring them all to FEPSI.  We can look for ways to help them start their businesses then.  But for now, it needs to remain private, because I can't help all seventy of the survivors at this point. The four women here who have just recently gone through this are my priority, but I will also do my best to help Hangie, I finish.
          Honestly, these five are my priority simply because they're sitting in front of me.  If all seventy of the women suddenly flooded the hut I'd probably black-out, and wake up with seventy women selling peanuts and no money left in my bank-account.  I don't want to meet any other survivors today.  I need to figure out a system that's effective and doesn't involve simply handing over cash.  In the hierarchy, dying is most important, but for me survivor of rape is next on the list.   
    -They will speak amongst themselves after we leave the hut and figure out a day that works best, says Urbain.  They will tell us the day, before we leave.
          We both get up and I say good bye to the women in Kinande.  They laugh, I love it.  Back across the dirt road, down the dirt path, into the banana trees flapping their green fingers in the wind; Maman Marie and the apprentice students are calling out names one by one and handing the green bags to the women.  Almost every woman who comes forward has a baby on her breast or swinging from her shoulders.  A bag of food, a bar of soap, a guinea pig, and an empty water jug.  The students are standing at different points around the bags keeping the children a few inches away.  Urbain jumps into the mix immediately.  At my request, Maman Marie has set aside five care-packages for the survivors in the hut.  I carry them back up to the hut with one of the students along with three water jugs.  We've run out of guinea pigs, but the women smile and say thank you as we hand over the packages.  They have decided on Monday, and I tell them I will return as close to eight a.m as possible to pick them up.
          Back at the truck again, Maman Marie yells a name, a woman yells in response, a bag is handed over, Urbain yells "cobay!"  A student passes a squealing guinea pig down the line and the woman walks off carrying her care-package through the crowd.  I stay out of the mix, taking a few pictures and enjoying the general positive energy of the crowd.  Although everyone isn't getting food, Maman Marie has also found a way of creating six groups to receive the potato root seeds.  Each group has a "president," who will organize the group to plant the seeds in order to multiply them, and then all will be distributed to a larger group of people.   The chatter in general is a light one.
          As I watch from a little ways away my skirt of children grows, as usual.  I start making faces at them and after their initial shock they laugh and start imitating my motions.  The alien goggles take a little practice, but within a few minutes a several kids have their hands upside down on their faces, with circles around their eyes and three fingers sprouting down their cheeks.  This is my contribution for the day, I think as I watch them trying to turn their palms upside-down against their faces.  It's not sustainable, but I still feel pretty good about it.  A little boy named Alexi who has been bouncing around me all day tugs lightly at my pants.  I look down and he points to the camera then to himself.  He looks terrified that I'll say no.  I gladly point the camera down at his dragonfly eyes and then show him what he looks like, frozen in the little screen.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010


          I can't keep the stories or the needs separate anymore, at least not without really trying.  Rape has become normal, four soldiers rather than two is only a bit out of the box and someone dying is a brief pause of grief in a conversation that continues.  I'm trying to separate displaced by the war from raped but not pregnant, raped with a resulting newborn, previous child soldier and orpheline.  I don't know how to put these things on a ladder.  I don't know how to say, you have more need because you were raped by four soldiers, and he only had his parents killed and has nowhere to go.  How do you prioritize suffering?
          On the Saturday that Marcela, Devote and the other survivors of sexual violence were supposed to come from Isale, only Marcela shows up.  Marcela along with sixteen malades.  We are supposed to be going to the Kavingu center that day, but now the porch of the office is crowded with people.  Half of the women have babies attached to their breasts and everyone is crinkled, dirty and looks exhausted.  The Finnish Liisa is still at the office trying to have a class like session and she looks completely overwhelmed with the people that have just descended on the office.  Maman Marie has explained that they are refugees from the affrontement and the worried, frightened look on Liisa's face reminds me that this is not normal.
          The point of Marcela coming was to bring her to FEPSI so she could talk a bit with Joelle and have another physical check-up to make sure she's okay.  Urbain and I leave COPERMA and walk with Marcela in the direction of FEPSI, it's only around the corner.
    -Why are all of these people here?  I ask Urbain.
    -They're the sick people from Isale.
    -I know but why did they come?  We can't actually do anything to help them.
          Their presence annoys me, simply because I can't do a damned thing to help them and I want to.  Urbain glances at Marcela walking just behind us.  She doesn't speak French so she walks quietly, in her own world.
    -She says that the Doctor wouldn't let them leave the hospital.  The road was too bumpy for the pregnant survivor, and the others, who were in the bush still when we visited, are now being treated at the hospital.
    -Well that's good.  But what are we supposed to do with all of those people?  FEPSI only treats survivors of sexual violence and people with vaiy ee ache, HIV.  We have nowhere to bring them and nothing to give them.  I don't understand why they came.
          I know exactly why they came.  They have absolutely nothing and when the survivors of sexual violence were given an invitation, the others thought, just maybe they could get some help too.  They have nothing left so a just maybe is a powerful motivator.  I'm simply taking out my frustration on Urbain.  He doesn't seem to mind.  The people I live and work with put up with a lot more from me than they should.  I'm almost constantly frustrated and acting childish in some way, but everyone puts up with me with unfaltering patience.  Lucky for me Congolese people are incredible.
    -The message got poorly relayed, he says.
    Oiy vey.  I start muttering to myself.  Urbain walks with me, smiling at the fact that I wear my heart fully displayed on my sleeve with flashing lights around it.
          When we get to FEPSI Joelle is there and is just as enthusiastic as always.  He is in a meeting with the anonymous benefactors from Barcelona, but he leaves the meeting to speak with me.
    -I brought one of the girls from Isale, I say and motion to Marcela sitting on a bench staring quietly at the floor.  She's the one in the yellow shirt.
          Joelle looks slowly around at her.
    -Okay, I'll have them start a file for her at reception and then I'll speak with her myself.
    -Thanks Joelle.
    -So, when are you coming over for dinner?  My wife wants to meet you.
          His smile is about to expand past the borders of his face and creep onto the walls behind him.  I laugh.
    -Whenever you invite me.  You tell me a day, and I'll be there.
    -Okay!  I'll talk to my wife.  She controls the schedule, not me.  He winks at me.  So I'll get a date from her and get back to you.
          I get up and say good bye to him.
    -Tell your Barcelona people I say thank you en touts cas!
    -I will he says, laughing as he heads back towards the meeting.  There are about five skinny muzungus sitting in the room.  I'm glad nobody tries to make me go in.  Sometimes people think that simply because we're white we'll know each other or have some innate need to speak.  I don't have to deal with it that often though since I've only seen four other muzungus here in four months, outside of these Barcelona Benefactors.
          I lead Marcela back downstairs to the reception office, using hand motions and facial expressions to get her to follow me.  Urbain explains in Kinande that she should come back to COPERMA when she is finished here, and we leave.  Back at the office, Liisa is still trying to accomplish things but it's not working very well.  Maman Marie is walking in and out of the lesson trying to figure out what to do with the people outside.  When I get back she leaves the class once again to speak with me.
    -We're clearly not going to make it to Kavingu!
    -No, that's quite clear, I say laughing.  What do you want to do with these people?  I don't have any way of helping them, and I believe you don't either, correct?
    -No, we're going to have to simply tell them to go home, and search for a way to help.
          I look around at the people.  Some are looking at the ground, some are watching us expectantly.  Traveling is very difficult; most of these people rode on one of the massively over-burdened trucks to get here and I'm sure the trek took a few hours.  I feel so bad sending them back empty handed.
    -We can do an enregistrement, says Maman Marie.  We'll take their information down and after that we can send them back to Isale.
          I like this idea.  At least they'll feel like we're trying to do something.  Maman Marie sends one of the apprentice students inside to get a table and several chairs.  Thankfully I have my laptop with me today, since the original plan was to start accumulating records at the centers, starting with Kavingu.  I walk across the dirt road in the sun.  It's hot today, which is rare, but the sun feels good.  There is a concrete room across the road where the students place the table and three chairs.  One of them sits next to me in the dark box as I open my computer and start setting up a file.  I can't quite decide what I should be asking, since I don't know what we're going to do with the information.  I stick with the basics:   name, sex, date of birth, original village, where currently staying, current situation, hopes from COPERMA, number of children, number of children still dependent.
          The first person to enter the container is the man from the hospital with the broken rib.  My spirits sink when I see him.  He's still clutching the right lower rib; I'm sure the rocky camion ride here was not pleasant, nor will the ride back be.

          Name:  Fidel Muchava
          DOB:  He looks around the room for a few minutes thinking.  1969, sometime after July.
          Original Village:  Isale-Bulambo
          Currently Staying:  Isale-Bulambo.
          Some of the information gets lost in translation, but I don't push it.  I found out Isale-Bulambo is a general region with many villages in it.  As the confrontation moves around, the refugees also move throughout the region, trying to avoid the soldiers without giving up the hope of going home.
          Situation:  Soldiers came to his house and asked for a chicken.  He didn't have a chicken so they beat him up and stole everything else he had.
          Number of Children:  Five
          Oldest/Number still dependent:  12/All still dependent.

          He gets up carefully and walks from the darkness into the bright sunshine.  The next person climbs in.  I can see through the open door that les malades have formed a line stretching across the road.The next person is a tiny woman who looks younger than me.  She has the obligatory baby hanging from her shoulders, holding her nipple in his teeth.

          Name:  Kavira Kayenie
          DOB:  She laughs when the student translates the question.  38 years old; sometime around 1972.
          Situation:  The soldiers took all of their food.  She is very sick and four months pregnant.  She was hospitalized but she is still not well.
          I ask what she is sick with, but I can never get a response on this.  She lists some of her symptoms, where she has pain and that she's constantly terrified.  Terrified comes out as a symptom.
          Number of children:  Ten, but five have died.
          Number still dependent:  Five left.

          She gets up and the next in line comes in.

          Name:  Esperance Kasuera.  She has a small round face with tribal scars, one line on each cheek.
          DOB:  She looks at me like I just asked who was the Czar of Russia in 1904?  Suddenly, she remembers something and fumbles with the cloth tied around her waist.  She pulls out a laminated identification card and hands it to me-- Nicolas II.
          DOB:  June 2, 1970
          Situation:  She was cultivating the field in Hirungu when the soldiers found her.  She was raped by four soldiers.  She did go to the hospital.  This happened about a month ago.
          She explains the situation as if she's telling me about going to the market yesterday.  She looks sad and doesn't smile, but those are the only things that give away the content of what she's saying. She finishes her story and there is a brief silence but c'est ca, is what I hear.
          Hope from COPERMA:  She doesn't have the strength or a way to find food for the kids.  Her means for living was in the field, but now the soldeirs took that from her.  Anything COPERMA can give, even ten francs.
          She doesn't say this in a pleading way, like most people when they ask for money.  She simply states it as a fact.  Ten francs is approximately one penny.  I have 20 dollars in my pocket.  I want to give her the 20 dollars but there's still a line of others with similar need.  It's endless, and handing over 20 dollars doesn't change a thing.  Again, I'm hit by the frightening problem of arranging suffering in a  hierarchy.
          Number of children:  Eight
         Oldest/Number still dependent:  25/Seven still dependent, one married.
          She gets up, the next comes in.

          Name:  Marie-Agnes Kisugho.  She's older than the others.  She has wrinkles that flicker in her face but can't decide whether or not to be present and scattered coils of silver in her hair.
          DOB:  She takes out a similar identification card.  July 25, 1950.
          Situation:  She was beaten by the soldiers.  They took everything, clothing, food, chairs, tables, everything.
          Number of children:  Four.  I'm relieved to hear a relatively low number.
          Oldest/Number still dependent:  20/Four

          She gets up, the next comes in.

          Name:  Josephine Kahambu.  Her voice is raspy and hoarse, she's struggling to get her words out.
          DOB:  March 15, 1978
          Situation:  She was raped.
    -By how many soldiers?  I ask and the question makes me sick.
          Only one, she says.  She did receive physical treatment from the hospital.  It happened about a month ago.
          Hope from COPERMA:  Anything you can find.
          Number of children:  Six but two died.
          Oldest/Number Dependents:  14/Four dependent.

          She gets up, the next comes in.  The next woman takes a while to make the big step into the room.  She's hunched and has more than a few spirals of silver in her hair.  Her movements are slowed by the pressure of age and it takes her a minute to get into the box and then onto the chair.
          Name:  Jacqueline Kahambu
          DOB:  July 25, 1937.  She's 73.
          I ask what happened, what situation she's currently in and silently beg her not to say the word viole.
          Situation: Her husband is dead, the soldiers came on foot and took everything she had in the house.  Her children don't work, they drink.
          She says the last part with the bitterness of a disappointed mother.  I can't stop myself from smiling slightly.  I am beginning to wonder what the soldiers do with all of these chairs and tables, pots and jugs.  There are 3,000 FRDC in Isale alone, but what do they do when they move to another area for another confrontation?  Do they just pick up their canvas tents and leave a pile of human belongings behind?  They are like Mary Poppins' purse except they're putting things in rather than taking them out.  They make less and less sense to me everyday.
          The next woman who comes in looks strong but is very thin and I can see her hands trembling as she sits down on the white plastic chair.  She has perfect crow's feet sprouting from her eyes, so perfect they look like they've been stamped on.  Her shaking hands make me want to reach forward and hold them steady and the fear in her face makes me want to hug her, leave or cry.
          Name:  Kavira Noel
          DOB:  1970.  She doesn't have an identification card.
          Situation:  The military came at night and took everything she had.  Everything in the house.  She fled but now she has returned home even though there's still not security.  She can't find anything to eat anymore, the soldiers stole everything and ruined the field.
          Hope from COPERMA:  Anything you can give.
          Number of children:  Ten.
          Number still dependent:  Ten plus four young grandchildren.  Fourteen dependents.
          She speaks quickly and leaves after only a few moments.  The next woman steps in.  She also has a baby slung around her neck.  The baby has huge eyes and is staring at us like he has never seen another human before and cannot get over the shock.
          Name:  Florina Kahambu
          DOB: 1967
          Situation:  The soldiers found her in the field, they raped her.
    -How many?
    -Two.  It was almost one month ago.  She did go to the hospital and receive medical treatment.
          Hope from COPERMA:  She can't find food or money in order to live.  Anything we can give, because she can't feed the kids or pay for medication.
          Number of children:  Ten, one died.
          Number of dependents:  One child married, eight still dependent.
          She leaves and I put my head in my hands.
    -How are we supposed to help these people?  I ask the boy acting as translator, as the next person climbs in.
    -I don't know, he says.
          All I've done is sit and type but I am exhausted.  There is still a small line outside and the thousand other people in Isale with the same stories.  All of them have had everything stolen, some have been raped, some have been beaten, none can return home and none can cultivate their fields.
          After I speak with all of the people in line I pack up my computer and head back across the dirt road.  I don't know what Maman Marie is going to do with these names and stories.  I don't know how we're going to put them in order and even begin moving forward.  She seems to come up with plans when I least expect it so I try not to get too caught up in the thought.
           I give the student two dollars, which can buy enough bananas for all of the victims.  They are now waiting on the side of the road in a different direction of line.  I go back into the office and Maman Marie heaves herself out of her chair to speak with me in another room.
    -I took their information down, I can print the list when I'm back at the Crosiers if we have electricity today.  I don't know how we're going to help.
          Maman Marie doesn't answer my question.  I don't think she knows either.
    -For now we should tell them they must go back so they can make it home before dark.
          We head outside.  She talks to them in Kinande as they munch on the thumb-sized bananas.  I get on my motorcycle, say good bye and head home abruptly.  I don't want to be there when they leave with only bananas in their hands.  I try to think of how we can organize the people and the need, how we can put some structure to the suffering, but I get back to the Crosier house without figuring out even one rung.  When I think I can help the women who were raped I feel bad for the old woman who was beaten by the soldiers.  Why shouldn't she get help too?  I focus my mind on FEPSI, which is a tangible tool I can utilize.  I try not to think about it too much without Maman Marie's experience and the rest of the team's amicable bickering to help.  I know in the end it will come down to, who is dying and who's not quite yet.